Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Isolating Madness: Photographs from Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, 1887-1907

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posted on 2021-11-15, 01:08 authored by Laing, Elizabeth

Frederic Truby King (1858-1938) is an eminent figure in New Zealand history. His name continues to flourish in contemporary society, due in part to its affiliation with the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society. However, the general populace is still relatively unaware of the time that King spent employed as the medical superintendent of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, on the remote outskirts of Dunedin. The prevailing image of King during this period is of a single-minded physician, whose career was in a state of acceleration towards the establishment of Plunket. But historians like Barbara Brookes and Catherine Coleborne have rightly started to establish this epoch as significant in its own right. This thesis extends their work by engaging with previously unpublished casebook photographs of patients in King’s care, taken between 1887 and 1907, from the restricted Seacliff Lunatic Asylum archives. Through six case studies, this thesis draws connections between these photographs and the paradigms established by such internationally renowned photographers as Hugh W. Diamond and James Crichton-Browne. It then discusses some distinctive photographs that appear unique to this institutional environment, images that challenge our preconceived notions of psychiatric institutions and their functions. This visual history complicates, and sometimes even challenges, the argument about psychiatric institutions and disciplinary power proposed by Michel Foucault and John Tagg, by demonstrating the diverse forms of photography that can occur within a single institution. This study is part of a growing body of research on the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum archives. In using a largely untapped source of photographic history, this project will contribute to future research on similar topics.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Art History

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970121 Expanding Knowledge in History and Archaeology

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Batchen, Geoffrey